Unusual things to do in Paris
The world’s most visited city needs little introduction – nor do its most famous sights. You could easily spend a month here and barely scratch the surface. From the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre to the Sacré-Cœur and Notre-Dame, nowhere else has such a concentration of art and architecture. The city’s reputation is so great that some visitors even suffer a phenomenon that’s been dubbed ‘Paris Syndrome’, a shock so severe that the city doesn’t live up to their expectations that it requires medical treatment.
So, where should you go to get a glimpse of a more authentic Paris? Start by shunning the city centre for an afternoon in the little-known suburb of Sceaux (pronounced ‘So’). Here you’ll find one of the city’s best-kept secrets: the majestic Parc de Sceaux and its sprawling gardens, designed by Le Nôtre, the landscape architect behind the grounds at Versailles. Encompassing topiary-lined formal avenues, bubbling fountains and shady groves, the park is particularly magical in spring when the cherry blossom is in bloom. Yet despite the fact that Sceaux is just half an hour from the centre of Paris by RER, few visitors discover it.
Back in the heart of Paris, swap the grandes dames of classical art for modern alternatives. The Pompidou might have the bigger international reputation, but the Palais du Tokyo‘s avant-garde installations will leave a more lasting impression – and you won’t have to wait an hour to see them. Similarly a trip to semi-legal art squat 59 Rivoli will be more enlightening than waiting in line to see the Mona Lisa.
Parc de Sceaux, Paris © HUANG Zheng / Shutterstock
Unusual things to do in London
London’s cosmopolitanism sets it apart from many other capitals. Waves of immigrant communities have shaped the city to the generally liberal, tolerant and forward-thinking place it is today. Yet this openness and diversity is slightly at odds with the pomp surrounding big sights like the British Museum, Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London.
Nor does the characterisation of British food as fish ‘n’ chips, roast dinners and afternoon tea ring entirely true. Food is actually one of the best ways to get beneath the surface of London. You could sit down at a shared table in East London at Imad’s Kitchen, a pop-up run by a Syrian refugee and restaurateur with the assistance of Help Refugees. Or you could book a self-guided tour around London’s local neighbourhoods with Taste Tripper, whose off the beaten track, curated experiences based around chocolate, craft beer and coffee guide you to some of the city’s finest artisan producers.
If outdoor adventures are more your thing, head for the water. London’s little-visited islands and islets are some of the best places to find solace in the city. You can visit London’s last lighthouse, now a popular wedding venue at Trinity Buoy Wharf, or even take to the water yourself with Kayaking London.
Kayaking on the River Thames in London © kawrou / Shutterstock
Unusual things to do in Amsterdam
Amsterdam has seen simply astonishing visitor growth, with a 13 percent increase in international visitors last year. Canals that were once peaceful are now party spots and residents are understandably protesting the city’s skyrocketing property prices. Not only does sustainable tourism offer a more enjoyable way to explore the city, it’s also key to preserving its future.
If you want to tackle overtourism head-on, swap your canal tour for a fishing trip with Plastic Whale. Instead of being plied with beers and beats you’ll be given a net to help collect rubbish discarded into the canals. Perhaps more appealing is a stay at the Conscious Hotel in Amsterdam’s leafy Vondelpark, where desks are made from recycled yoghurt pots and all power comes from renewable sources.
To get out of city centre altogether, explore industrial Amsterdam Noord, a free ferry ride across the river IJ. The best place to eat is Pllek, a bar-meets-restaurant-meets-club in a renovated shipping container on the dockside of NDSM wharf, while you can finish up your day with a ride on Europe’s highest swing on the roof of the 22-storey A’DAM Toren.
Pllek restaurant in Amsterdam © Benjamin Zanatta / Unsplash
Unusual things to do in Barcelona
Where cruise ships meet budget airlines, things get busy. The alleyways of Barcelona’s beautiful Barri Gòtic can feel overrun in the summer, while queues for the magnificent Sagrada Família threaten to detract from its unparalleled beauty. Escaping the crowds here requires insider knowledge – and tours are the name of the game. Viator is a gold-mine of small-group experiences: look to tour tapas bars in the evenings and visit the famous Boqueria market or its lesser-known siblings the Mercat de la Concepció or the Mercat de la Llibertat during the day.
One of the loveliest contrasts to the press of the city centre is a trip out to the Pènedes, where 95 percent of Spain’s cava is made. You can book a trip with a guide, but it’s just as easy under your own steam. Wineries like organic pioneers Albet i Noya welcome visitors for tours and tastings and they’re spearheading a revival of ancestral Catalan grape varieties. Nothing says holiday bragging rights like picking up a bottle you’d never find in duty free.
Cava vineyards in Pènedes, Spain © Siro_Rodenas / Shutterstock
Top image: © kawrou / Shutterstock